A love letter to the working dog, this heartwarming memoir about life on a sheep farm captures the joys and heartbreak of loving a pet
Patti Sherlock's working relationship with her Border Collie, Duncan, got her through the ups and downs of sixteen years on a sheep farm in Idaho. During that time, Duncan was an unwavering companion through the destruction of Patti's marriage, her children inevitably leaving home one by one, and eventually, her decision to stop raising sheep. Patti's life on the farm is a reflection of beginnings and endings, and the cycle of seasons in all of our lives.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Patti Sherlock lives on a farm in Idaho. She walks her dogs in fields that are home to hawks, owls, ravens, coyotes, and a family of golden eagles.
Patti Sherlock lives on a farm in Idaho. She walks her dogs in fields that are home to hawks, owls, ravens, coyotes, and a family of golden eagles.
Read an Excerpt
A Dog For All Seasons
By Patti Sherlock
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Patti Sherlock
All rights reserved.
I stood in an open field on the Charlie Kimball ranch in Central Idaho. In distant corrals, I could see sheep milling, looking like white foam washing up on the hillside. A breeze coming off the blue peaks behind the ranch caused me to zip up my jacket. It was August, but already early morning had a fall-like feel.
George and I had left our home in Idaho Falls before sunup with a sleepyheaded Mary; Matt and Shane had preferred to stay in bed on a Saturday. We'd come to buy a new ram for our growing flock of ewes. For me, the day would be fateful.
We were raising a new sheep breed, the Polypay. At national sales we'd attended, sheep consigned by fellow Idahoan Charlie Kimball had impressed us. Kimball ran a range sheep operation, grazing 3,000 head on government land near Sun Valley, the famous Idaho resort and celebrity hangout.
We followed Charlie to his corrals. Four-year-old Mary wrested her hand from mine and ran off.
"Don't scare the sheep," I called.
"Let her run," Charlie said. Tall, white-haired, taller still in straw cowboy hat and boots, he glided over the ground with huge strides. George and I had to stretch our steps to keep up.
When we got to the pens, I said, "Wow!" The rams looked beautiful — muscular and masculine with handsome faces and tight fleeces.
I got to be the one who selected our rams because of a lucky first experience a few years before. I'd purchased our first ram by myself, relying on blind luck and advice from a passerby. The ram I took home turned out to be an exceptional producer whose daughters gave birth to numerous multiples. George would say how much we could spend for a ram; I would employ intuition and consider aesthetics when deciding on one.
"Get in there," George said to me, "and see what you like." He climbed over the fence and started moving the rams toward me.
We wanted our rams to have straight legs with good bone and a wide stance, characteristics they would pass to their daughters, the ewes that would build our flock. The best of our ram lambs would be sold for breeding, but most males would be castrated to become meat wethers, so we wanted good meat characteristics, too. I'd learned to tell quality of loin and legs by feeling the sheep with my hands, which is what I set about doing.
Suitability for breeding had to be considered, too, and examining testicles for circumference and attachment was part of ram selection. (In future years, I would let it drop in polite company that I was something of a testicle expert, having handled hundreds of sets.)
For the next hour, George and Charlie caught candidates and held them while I checked loins, legs, testicles, and wool. Mary hung on the fence, pointing. "I like that one, Mommy. Check him."
We narrowed the field to two beautiful yearlings. We would breed the daughters of one to the other and not have to go ram shopping again for a couple of years.
"Could we look at their papers?" George asked.
Charlie pushed back his hat. "I misunderstood. I thought you were looking for commercial rams. I've been too busy to keep up the paperwork for purebred registry."
I should have remembered to check that on the phone.
"You going to stay strictly purebred?" he asked.
We nodded. As purebred breeders we could offer careful records on ancestry, productivity, and weight gain so buyers could improve the quality of their sheep. But it was disappointing not to take home a beautiful Kimball ram.
"Come up to the house for coffee," Charlie said. "And you'll want to see the pups."
I stopped walking and scowled at the ground. Pups were a tender subject with me.
By now, the August sun had warmed things and cobalt sky stretched from one horizon to the other. Charlie glided ahead of us, talking about signs of early winter. On his summer range, the aspens were turning yellow and his horses already had shaggy hair.
Roma, Charlie's wife, waved from the porch, where she sat snapping beans into a bowl. A black-and-white Border collie pup gnawed on her shoe. Three other pups and the bitch came running out from under a farm wagon.
One pup charged up to me. I picked it up. It squirmed, licked, and tested razor teeth on my chin. "I want to hold him," Mary said, so I put the wriggler in her arms. He raked her skin with his claws and she dropped him. The pup scrambled to his feet and began to paw at her legs. Mary ran away and climbed onto the wagon tongue to escape.
A handsome pup sat a distance away, watching us. He had a blaze on his muzzle, a white collar of fur, four white legs, and a white belly. He looked like a calendar picture of the classically marked Border collie.
I knelt down. "Here, pup."
He trotted over, head up, confident. I petted him.
A mostly black pup slunk back under the wagon. Mary and I leaned over and tried to coax him out. When I finally got hold of him, I noticed the roof of his mouth was black, a trait old-time sheepmen believed signified strong herding instinct. The minute I set him down, he dashed back under the wagon.
I reached for the shoe gnawer. Like the black pup, she was shy, and slipped under Roma's chair.
"Need a good dog to help with those sheep?" Roma asked.
I felt a pang. We'd had three stock dogs and all had come to bad ends. I didn't know if I had it in me to try again. But my eyes kept going to the poised pup who sat ten feet away, alternately studying me, Roma, Charlie, George, and Mary.
"If you're going to grow your business," Charlie said, "you just about have to have a good dog."
The stock dogs we'd lost all had shared a compulsive need to herd. That trait proved dangerous around cars. I'd worked to break them of chasing cars and kept them confined most of the time, but despite my carefulness, all had met with accidents involving vehicles.
It would be helpful to have a dog to pen sheep. Matt and Shane were good helpers, but sometimes I needed to move sheep when they were at school and George was at work. Mary knew how to corral sheep, but she would go to kindergarten next year. Besides, human help tired of running after sheep, but a good sheepdog believed it to be the greatest fun.
On top of that, we were trying to improve the cleanliness of our wool. Clean wool, uncontaminated by vegetable matter, brought more money. Hay and grain particles worked their way into the wool and had to be removed by hand at the woolen mill, so we tried to minimize how much feed fell onto their fleeces. But the ewes always beat me to the mangers, and I ended up tossing hay and grain onto their heads and backs.
"Could a dog keep the sheep back from the mangers when I'm feeding?" I asked.
"Of course," Charlie said.
"The dog doesn't let the sheep eat until you say it's okay."
"But how do you train the dog to do that?"
Charlie looked puzzled. "You tell the dog not to let the sheep in."
"What I mean is ..." I stopped. Kimball probably was one of those magical people whom animals obeyed naturally. Maybe he didn't know how to do it step-by-step.
Charlie said, "When you've got a good dog, you just tell it what you want it to do and it does it."
I nodded. I could get a video on training sheepdogs.
"My birthday is this week," I hinted to George.
"How much?" he asked Roma.
"Huh! I hope to God we're never so poor we have to charge people to get good dogs!" Roma stood firm on that and only with considerable urging accepted ten dollars to help with puppy food.
On the way home, the pup gazed out the window, sitting first on Mary's lap, then on mine. He showed no distress about leaving his mother and the home where he'd been raised. After awhile, he fell asleep between Mary and me.
When we returned home, Matt and Shane showered attention on the pup and took him off to show him the place.
I named him Duncan after Duncan in Macbeth because of his Scottish roots. On my birthday, Duncan endured wearing a party hat. When I blew out the candles on my cake, I made a wish that my new pup would avoid the tragedy that had befallen the others.CHAPTER 2
At the time I met George I owned three sheep and a horse. When George picked me up for our first date and saw my three ewes in a pen, he stopped to look at them. George's grandparents, it turned out, had raised sheep in New Mexico, grazing bands of them on mountain pastures in the summer. George had experienced life as a sheepherder when he was ten years old. His mother and dad had sent him to a sheep camp to help tend his grandparents' flock. For months, his only human companions were Mexican herders who spoke no English except for the nickname they gave him, "Chicken Shit."
I had two other assets — five-year-old twin sons, Matt and Shane. I'd married their father, Chuck, during the Vietnam War. Chuck had lost his student deferment when he finished college. He went into the army. In boot camp, hobbling on blistered feet and with head ringing from the insults of drill sergeants, he called and asked me to marry him. Under everyday circumstances, we likely wouldn't have wed. The marriage lasted only a short time but produced a grand pair of boys.
The little boys and I had been on our own for a few years. I did magazine and newspaper writing, raised a garden, and had managed to hang on to my horse by way of a hay-for-writing arrangement.
A book contract had fallen my way, too, after an editor at Double-day had seen a magazine article I'd written on western sheepherders. Following a hundred-year-old Rocky Mountain tradition, herders took bands of sheep to the mountains for summer grazing, then brought them back in the fall to winter in the valley. The editor believed their story worthy of a book.
That spring, I began my research by visiting lambing sheds. One day, as I was getting ready to leave a sheep ranch, the rancher put a bum (orphan) lamb into my arms and told me to take it home and raise it. The lamb had wide, innocent eyes and a sweet, distinctive smell. It peered up at me and said, "Maa-aa?"
The rancher said, "Careful. Sheep get in your hair." He was right. I raised another bum, then another.
"Nice ewes," George said on that first evening, gazing into their pen. No one else I'd dated had admired my sheep. He also greeted my Keeshond dog, Tundra, and Matt's cat, Peter.
I introduced George to Matt and Shane, then went to my bedroom to pick up a jacket. When I returned, George was on the floor with the boys and the three of them were laying out a board game. The babysitter fidgeted while I looked on, impressed.
George, a longtime bachelor, had streaks of gray in his hair but an easy, boyish smile. He was handsome, smart, and lived near Washington, D.C., where he worked as an engineer for the Department of Energy. He came to Idaho Falls, Idaho, periodically to check the progress of a small hydro power project. That's how I'd met him. I'd been doing public relations writing for DOE.
I enjoyed dinner with him, but at the end of that first evening, he astounded me by telling me he loved me. On our second date, he mentioned marriage. I felt attracted to him but thought he was rash. On the other hand, I remembered wonderfully romantic tales about enduring love that took root at first sight.
George suggested we get married around the first of the year. We would have known each other only a few months. Though we talked on the phone daily when he was in D.C., we had spent little face-to-face time together.
I expressed this doubt to George. He said, "I've waited too long already. I want a family."
I loved my life in rural Idaho. We had a small house, two lean-to animal shelters, and beautiful open spaces near our home. My neighbors, the Petersons, let the boys gather eggs at their house. We bought goat's milk from the Petersons and had fresh lamb for our table.
The little boys and I took long walks in lava fields near our house. On summer evenings we sat on the haystack, read books, pointed at hawks reeling overhead, and watched the sun paint colorful stripes onto the western horizon. I had plenty of social activities, but I longed for a full-time parenting partner to share the wonderfulness of my life. Plus, I knew firsthand how a child can long to have a dad in the home. I had never lived with my own dad, and my visits with him had been too short and too infrequent.
The next time George visited in Idaho, I asked about his parents. A coworker had told me that George had taken care of his mother when she was dying of cancer, so I asked about his father, who had died a long time before.
"Daddy," George said with his slight southern accent, "was the most admirable man in the world."
"He was always kind to everyone."
I chewed on this. This man had grown up with an example of kindness that he wanted to emulate. I turned his words over and over after I got home that night, and by morning, had turned a corner in my thinking.
George said we would marry and move to his home in Arlington, Virginia, only until he could swing a transfer, then we'd move back to Idaho and begin to raise sheep. While we were gone, farmer friends would keep my sheep and a rancher friend would put my horse to good use.
We said our marriage vows at my Episcopal church. Then George and I knelt at the altar and put our wrists together. My priest, Father Bob, wrapped them in his stole and intoned, "This symbolizes the three parties pledging to this marriage — George, Patti, and God." I gulped at the solemnity of it. My family held records for marital instability, but by God and with God, I'd do better.
At the reception, George's rancher cousin from New Mexico made an observation that showed he had an appreciation for dowry. Looking at Matt and Shane he said, "George got himself a couple of fine hands."
We had unseasonably good weather for our trip across the country and reached Virginia in time for me to enroll the boys in school before Christmas break ended.
The first morning in our new home, I went to the kitchen and searched for pots and pans. I looked outside and saw George sitting on the porch drinking a beer. It was 8 A.M.
"I'll be cooking breakfast," I said.
He lifted a can. "I've got mine."
But he came to appreciate food at breakfast time. He'd been a bachelor for so long, he gave me compliments on the simplest fare. One morning he asked, "What do you call this? It's delicious."
"That's, um, oatmeal."
Once a week, I took the subway into D.C. to visit museums. At first I said hello to fellow subway passengers and asked them how they were, but I received searing looks in return. Soon, like the others, I avoided eye contact and observed silence.
George's cat, Charley, resented us as intruders and bullied Matt's cat, Peter. Our easygoing, fluffy gray dog, Tundra, hated traffic and noise and became edgy.
A vacant lot overgrown with bamboo plants sat next to George's house and the boys played there, imagining jungle adventures. With George's help, they constructed a raft to float on a slow-moving creek a few miles from our house.
But in Idaho they'd had miles of empty land to explore. They had constructed roads and bridges to run trucks over, made forts from hay bales, dug underground forts, and had built a fire pit on the hillside.
One night I reached under Matt's pillow to retrieve the tooth he'd lost that day. I heard something rustle. I pulled out a sandwich bag that contained the tooth and a piece of notepaper. I went to the living room and turned on the light. In the Baggie, I found a careful drawing of a jet plane, with a note.
Dear Tooth Faree,
Would you plees bring me a jet plan so we can go back to Idaho?
The Baggie held pennies, dimes, and nickels. Matt understood that jets cost a lot, and a single tooth wouldn't purchase one.
I sat on the edge of the sofa, throat constricted. I, like Matt, longed for some magic. Could a request from a trusting, homesick child bring a supernatural solution our way so we could leave this crowded, unfriendly place?
The next day after school, I gave the boys a snack, then we put on coats and set off. If we could find a high vantage point, maybe we could see over the trees and buildings for a view of the setting sun.
We took a sidewalk that led upward, but when we got to the top of it, all we could see were trees and buildings, murky in the haze.
"We'll go higher," I said. Nearby, I saw a path in a small community park leading upward. We started up the hill. Dense tree growth surrounded us on both sides and birds sang. It wasn't Yellowstone Park, but it was pleasant. At the pinnacle of the path, we'd managed to get above the buildings. But the trees went on forever, and so did the gray film that obscured the sky. No sign of the sun.
"Should we go home?" Shane asked.
"Wait a minute." I looked around for a higher spot. I saw another rise. If we walked south a bit, then climbed ... We started off again.
Excerpted from A Dog For All Seasons by Patti Sherlock. Copyright © 2010 Patti Sherlock. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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